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Bangladesh’s Secluded Community

In 2013, the recognition of the Hijras as a third gender was a landmark decision made by the Bangladeshi government. For the members of the community, it meant recognition, acceptance, and access to quality healthcare, education, and housing. But despite governmental efforts, creating a culture of recognition has failed to terminate the discrimination of Hijras in Bangladeshi society.

Members of the Hijra community studying the Quran in the Dawatul Koran Third Sex Madrassa, the first Islamic school for transgender people in Dhaka, Bangladesh. Photograph by Abu Sufiyan Jewel of the BBC.

The Hijras have a recorded history in Bangladesh and surrounding countries. Their stories and ways of life are anchored into South Asian history and culture. The definition of the word ‘hijra’ is largely debated. The word translates to ‘leaving one’s tribe’ in Urdu, but many South Asians associate the word with castration and hermaphroditism. Hijra activists wish to eradicate this form of vocabulary because the Hijra identity can’t be described using Western taxonomy.

After the 2013 decision, the National Human Rights Commission of Bangladesh (NHRC) and Bandhu Social Welfare Society (BSWS) collaborated to protect and promote the rights of the Hijras. While this effort has brought some progress to the discrimination issue, the community continues to experience resistance from the larger Bangladeshi community. Activists believe the resistance stems from the Hijras breaking societal and cultural norms. Historians believe that European colonialism in Bengal also may play a factor. Many may argue that Bangladesh’s poor sex education is the leading cause behind misinformation surrounding gender, sex, and sexuality, topics considered taboo. This continual discrimination poses a threat to the mental health and stability of the Hijras, especially during a global pandemic.

In 2015, a study regarding parental attitudes towards sex education was conducted by researcher Mohammed Kowsar Bhuiyan of the University of Dhaka. The study revealed that approximately 57% of parents disapproved of the teaching of sexuality. About 42% disapproved of the teaching of male and female reproductive organs while only 37% approved. 22% remained neutral. Based on the chi-squared test, religious beliefs played no factor in their decisions. However, their highest level of education played a significant factor. Less-educated parents don’t have the confidence/knowledge needed to properly educate their children about gender and sexuality. As a result, Bhuiyan describes sex education as a “neglected term” in Bangladesh. Improper sex education leads to ignorance about its subjects and threatens public knowledge of the Hijra community.

The Bangladeshi society has conservative values and traditions. Gender roles and norms dominate workplaces, schools, and homes. Breakage from such societal norms can lead an individual to experience shame and seclusion. The Hijras are classified as transgender women, meaning their sex assigned at birth is male. Male members of society are expected to bring honor to their families through social obligations. The Hijras, through the way they dress and express themselves, violate all aspects of gender norms, leading to societal stigmatization. Once their identities are known to the public, their families experience backlash and discrimination, forcing them to shut themselves out from the rest of society.

All this resistance from society is bound to impact the mental health and wellbeing of the Hijras. The start of the COVID-19 pandemic has brought hardship to billions all over the world. These hardships include poor food supply, unemployment, loss of a loved one, and mental health issues. For the Hijras, mental health issues spiked during the pandemic. A survey conducted by The Lancet revealed that 94% of the Hijras were anxious about their money, and 68% were anxious about the lack of food to feed their families. 59% didn’t receive any aid from relief programs and 16% experienced mental abuse. These “multiple and intersecting forms of discrimination” can lead to “long-term psychological complications” and ultimately suicide. Many Hijras refuse to seek medical assistance (even after suffering from COVID-19 complications) because they fear discrimination from healthcare workers and other patients. As a result, Bangladeshi education campaigns and activists are working to reduce stigmatization and increase mental health literacy.

During the pandemic, a lot of efforts have been executed to help the Hijras prevail through the pandemic struggles. Recently, the Bangladeshi government rewarded tax breaks to companies willing to hire transgender women. Not only will this benefit small businesses, but it will also lower the unemployment rate and help transgender women avoid social exclusion. But discrimination will still pose an issue. Until school curriculums teach proper sex education and Bangladeshis change their traditionalistic mindsets, the Hijras will have to continue to endure the prejudice. For now, those that empathize with the Hijras must educate those that don’t. They must be the voice of the Hijras and remind the ignorant that Hijra rights are human rights.




References

[1] Ahmed, Shale. “Recognition of ‘Hijra’ as the Third Gender in Bangladesh.” Bandhu Social Welfare Society, 11 November 2013. https://www.csbronline.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/08/ShaleAhmed_HjraRights_CSBR-ILGAAsia2015.pdf


[2] Bhuiyan, Mohammed Kowsar. “Inclusion of Sex Education in School Curriculum of Bangladesh: Parents’ Attitude.” IOSR Journal of Research & Method in Education, vol. 4, no. 5, 2014, pp. 32-40. http://www.iosrjournals.org/iosr-jrme/papers/Vol-4%20Issue-5/Version-6/F04563240.pdf

[3] Klapper, Rebecca. “Bangladesh to Give Tax Breaks to Companies Hiring Transgender Workers.” Newsweek, Newsweek, 3 June 2021, www.newsweek.com/bangladesh-give-tax-breaks-companies-hiring-transgender-workers-1597259.

[4] Stenqvist, Tove. The Social Struggle of being Hijra in Bangladesh. Malmö University, 2015. https://archive.nyu.edu/bitstream/2451/42375/2/The%20social%20struggle%20of%20being%20HIJRA%20in%20Bangladesh.pdf

[4] The Effect of COVID-19 on Hijra People in Bangladesh. The Lancet - Psychiatry, vol. 7, 2020. https://www.thelancet.com/journals/lanpsy/article/PIIS2215-0366(20)30464-8/fulltext



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